Last week, Seattle-based photojournalists Alex Garland and Kelly O. made the long drive across Big Sky Country to spend time with the community of protesters who are engaged in a tense standoff with oil companies in an attempt to put a stop to a pipeline that they worry will have catastrophic effects on the local environment and on sites sacred to Native Americans.
Thousands inhabit a series of camps, the largest of which stretches as far as four or five football fields. Protesters hail from across the country, making camp in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, whose lands could be polluted by the 1,172-mile pipeline.
Some protesters stay weeks, others have been there for months and plan to continue their peaceful action through the winter. They are equipped to do so — the group organizes ride-shares among its members, has refrigerated trucks for cold food storage and even a school, Garland said.
Roughly 100 yards from the main gathering place is the Seven Council tent, which looks like seven tepees combined into one, Garland said. Near the fire were tobacco sacks, prayer cloths and other spiritual objects.
“It’s a sacred-feeling space,” Garland said. “It commands respect just being there.”
Their presence has kept the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline — a conduit for 570,000 barrels of oil a day that would run from North Dakota to Illinois — front and center in national and international news. The protesters worry that a potential oil spill would contaminate the Missouri River, the area’s main source of water, and that construction will disturb sacred sites that are important to the Sioux tribes.
They receive support from people across the country — Garland and O. helped deliver food donated by Aji and Adonis Piper, two teens who sued the state of Washington for failing to act on climate change this year.
It’s incumbent on the government to respect and protect the lands that the tribes hold sacred, wrote Cecile Hansen, chair of the local Duwamish tribe.
“Our Tribe support the upraising of all natives across our nation who are greatly concerned of disturbing sacred sites, burial grounds and most of their traditional lands, their reservations which all must hold respect for these areas,” Hansen wrote in a statement.
The road to stall the pipeline has been rocky.
On Sept. 9, a federal judge denied an injunction requested by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to stop construction on the pipeline. The tribe alleged that the Army Corps of Engineers had not done appropriate outreach to get input before signing off on the construction permits.
Although the judge came to the conclusion that the Army had fulfilled its obligations to the tribe, the Department of Justice, Department of the Army and Department of the Interior released a joint statement on the same day that the judge announced his decision.
The departments acknowledged their victory in court and, in the next breath, announced that the Army would not authorize construction of the pipeline on government land near Lake Oahe. They called for the private company building the pipeline to voluntarily pause all construction within 20 miles east or west of the lake.
Two weeks later on Sept. 23, the three departments released another joint statement inviting tribal leaders to participate in formal discussions to improve the processes for them to comment on future infrastructure projects.
Consultations are scheduled in six regions of the country from Oct. 25 through Nov. 21. The deadline for written input will be Nov. 30.